October 3, 2021
I’ve been reading a book about loneliness. Which I realize sounds depressing, but it’s also fascinating. I’m learning about what researchers are calling an epidemic of loneliness in this country, as well as the ways that loneliness can shorten our lives or increase our risks for a number of different injuries and illnesses. It can make it more likely we’ll have a heart attack and less likely that we’ll be able to fight off illnesses with a strong immune system.
Kristen Radtke, who wrote the book, was surprised that when she told her friends that she was working on a project about loneliness, they started naming their own loneliest experiences, which were quite specific.[i] They said things like “When I was pregnant, and the year after I gave birth” or “I planned a birthday party in seventh grade and only one person came” or “Being away from my grandmother. I have never loved anyone as much since.”
Of course we can be alone without being lonely. Solitude has its place, and some people prefer that alone time more than others. It doesn’t automatically mean you’ll feel lonely. And as we’re all aware, it’s possible to feel lonely without being alone. Sometimes our loneliest feelings happen with family all around us. It’s possible to be lonely and married. Lonely with children. Lonely in the middle of a party.
There are certain passages in scripture that make it very hard to get up here and preach a sermon. Today’s gospel is one of them. Both this piece of Mark’s gospel, as well as our story from Genesis, have been twisted to serve all kinds of damaging ends, things like deeming women inferior to men or pressuring people to stay in harmful marriages. And so we keep doing the work of interpreting these texts in our modern world while also remembering that the realities of the ancient world were quite different from our own.
The Pharisees come to Jesus with a specific question: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” It seems simple enough. Yes or no, Jesus. But it’s interesting that they ask “Is it lawful?” They’re not asking about what is helpful or healthy or advisable or good for anyone. Just: Is it lawful? They want Jesus on the record with this one. Keep in mind that it hasn’t been that long since John the Baptist was beheaded for commenting on Herod’s marital choices, so this is a pretty high-stakes question – one that potentially gets Jesus in big trouble, depending on his answer.
Some biblical scholars will note that Jesus’ answer allows for both men and women to initiate divorce proceedings, which offers a kind of equality that seems rare for the ancient world. I find it more interesting that instead of giving a legal answer, Jesus points back to that part of Genesis that we heard in the first reading. Jesus emphasizes the importance of relationship.
That’s what the Genesis story is really about. Throughout the first chapter of Genesis, everything that God creates is good. The sea and the sky? Good. The sun and the moon? Good. Every creature you can imagine – flying and swimming and crawling and creeping? All good. Here in the second chapter of Genesis we hear what is not good: “It is not good that the man should be alone.”
Here’s an important note about language. The Hebrew word that gets translated here into English as “man” is the word “adam,” which more accurately means “human.” Throughout this story it’s sometimes ha-adam, or “the human.” Earlier in Genesis we hear about God creating adam – this human – out of the dust of the earth, so some translators call this person “the earthling.” God decides that it is not good for this human to be alone. The animals are wonderful, but they can’t really be a partner in the truest sense. So God creates another human, a helper, a partner. The Hebrew suggests a “fitting partner” – a partnership of equals, not one of dominance and weakness.
At the heart of the story is that it is not good for humans to be alone. I have a hunch that Jesus points to that Genesis story to remind the Pharisees and anyone else who is listening that we are created to be in relationship. We need that human connection, one to another. We need fitting partners, people who stay with us on the journey, who support us in being exactly who God made us to be, who call us out when we’re doing or saying something that we shouldn’t. People who know us. People we trust.
I know the gospel leans hard into a focus on marriage, but I want to suggest this morning that we think more broadly of all human relationships that provide nurture and support and accountability. Close friends, siblings, children, parents. There are so many relationships that demand our full commitment and love. We all need it. We begin to die without it.
Jesus understands how much we need relationship. And Jesus knows all too well that we let each other down. We betray each other’s trust. Anyone who has been through a divorce or known someone who has understands that it is painful. Some divorces inflict more damage than others, but it is never easy. Sometimes, for all kinds of reasons, people are no longer able to be fitting partners for each other. Sometimes all the pathways for reconciliation or repair have been exhausted, and there is no way forward except to end the relationship.
Jesus describes divorce and remarriage as adultery. In today’s world we would not call that adultery, but we have all kinds of ways that we betray those to whom we are closest. We are not always faithful to those whom we trust and who trust us. We can be dismissive of things they care about. We can fail to listen or provide the support they need. We can mislead or lie to them. We can give so much attention to other things that we fail to be present to our spouses, our children, our parents, our siblings, our friends.
In a strange and perhaps painful way, Jesus reminds us of two important truths:
- It’s not good for us to be lonely because we are created for loving relationships.
- We have far too many ways to hurt the people with whom we share those loving relationships.
The work of relationship is hard work. It demands a commitment to repair and renewal that nothing else in life requires in the same way. It calls us to keep reorienting ourselves in love, to keep forgiving and asking for forgiveness, to keep trying to help the person we love flourish.
The only chance we have of doing that work well is by remembering how much we are loved. We are loved by a God who created us in the beginning, who fashioned us for relationships, who gave us fitting partners of all kinds for this life’s journey. A God who has forgiven us again and again and who gives us the gift of loving others well.
I pray that we will treat that gift of relationship – whatever it looks like in our lives – with tenderness and reverence. It is a gift beyond measure. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i] Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness by Kristen Radtke
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